On James Merrill’s The Seraglio & the literary ‘frisson’

Reading is a physical process, and the body of every avid reader retains the faintest traces of the physical effects left upon it by the books he’s read. I’m not talking about eyestrain, or backache or even a stiff neck. And I don’t mean just laughter and tears — although these are both rare and welcome by-products of our reading. Nor do I refer to the force that impels us to fling a book across the room because of its sheer fatuousness or the unearned demands it makes on our time or attention.

I mean a physical reaction, a deposit of complex pleasure, that’s unique to art: what the French call the frisson. The word ‘frisson’ means both shudder or shiver, and thrill: in other words, the frisson is, equally, a reaction of fear and pleasure. It is an art-emotion that Rilke captured so well in those famous lines from the first of the Duino Elegies:

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us.

No writer more assiduously analyzed or nourished this art-shudder than Nabokov: he described it variously as a “thrill,” “aesthetic bliss” and “the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs.” In his lecture on Dickens, he rhapsodizes, “although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite the highest emotion humanity has evolved.”

Every serious reader cultivates the art-shudder and will happily list the works that have given him this singular thrill. For many readers it begins in youth with horror fiction; I would start my list with books that are on most lists: at eight, the end of Johnny Tremain, and Johnny running through the streets of Revolutionary War Boston and yelling ‘Rab’s dead!’ Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, read at thirteen. The final thunderous pages of The Great Gatsby, read my senior year in high school; in my twenties, Larkin’s poetry ; in my thirties Walter Raleigh’s What is our life? with its clinching line “but we die in earnest, that’s no jest.”

One favorite work that is probably on few lists is James Merrill’s first novel The Seraglio (1957). The Seraglio hardly what you’d think of as a poet’s novel. Merrill’s second novel, The (Diblos) Notebook, which is plotless, experimental and preoccupied with language, especially the aesthetics of literary revision, is more what you’d expect from a poet.

The Seraglio is in many ways a period piece: Freudian and antiquarian like many cultural products of the Fifties. It even features that favored character of Fifties culture, the sinister, self-hating homosexual, with the perfect sissy name of Francis.

Merrill’s work resembles a brittle novel of manners, with its precisely observed social milieu — the artsy old money set in and around Boston and New York — and its carefully doled-out apercus.

The Seraglio tells the story of Francis Tanning, the homosexual scion of an old, ailing but still potent financial tycoon, Benjamin Tanning. Around the elder Tanning, at The Cottage, his summer house, is the seraglio, the harem of available women: fiancées, ex-wives, the wives of penniless colleagues, bohemian artists. Francis himself, so sensitive as a boy that a recipe for apple pie causes him to burst into tears, drifts around Europe, has a few disastrous entanglements with women, tries in vain to please his father.

Then, halfway through the novel, Francis takes a straight razor and cuts off his own penis. The scene is realistically rendered — “The blade was very sharp; something began easily to separate then to resist, tougher than a thong of leather” — one shudders to imagine the research involved in bringing it to life.

The novelist has artfully prepared us for this shock: a portrait is mutilated on the opening page, and in the novel’s metaphorical language and ornamental detail, there are decapitations and disfigurements everywhere we look. Francis has already tried to rid of himself of his manhood once by attempting to give away his inheritance.

A lesser novelist would have ended with the self-castration. For Merrill, the act initiates a psychic journey that is ultimately unknowable. Francis proclaims his own freedom from rules and entanglements, dabbles in the occult (here is the beginning of Merrill’s unfortunate lifelong infatuation with the Ouija board), drives too fast, quotes Lady Macbeth’s line about unsexing herself, and displays a genius for making everyone around him uncomfortable.

The father, Benjamin, who in some ways resembles a more benign version of the rapacious tycoon from Chinatown, loves his son in his own way.

Towards the end of the novel the elder Tanning remarries, but that hardly puts an end to his kind of seigneurialism. Sex is at the center of this novel in ways that it can never be in James’s work. Creepily, Francis eyes another prospect for his father, and awakens his father’s interest in her. It is as this point that we realize the significance of the title: aha! We say, every harem needs its eunuch!

But the real surprise is in the final pages of the novel.

I read the last pages of the novel on a summer day very much like the one the novel’s ending describes. It would be a cliché, and untrue, to say that I was transported, or suddenly lost awareness of my surroundings; if anything I was more aware of the fat mosquitoes that I slapped on my shins, the huge elm tree above my head, the stagnant, lichen-rimmed inlet below the house, the handful of pleasure boats out on the bay.

And here was the art-thrill again, in the last few pages of the novel; in the walled garden of the summer house, Francis is drawn into a game of Hide-and-Seek with his nephews and nieces:

Lily…rehearsed the rules he obeyed at her age, in the same walled garden.

“Uncle Francis is It,” she announced proudly at last. “If he wants to play he has to be It.”

Francis shuts his eyes and counts to a hundred:

“Ready or not!” he shouted…With exaggerated stealth and flashing stern glances into the greenery he started across the lawn…Where were they? No sound of smothered laughter came to ease his confusion.

But only after coming upon the children building castles at the sea’s edge, oblivious to him, did Francis stare over the lulled water and understand. He was It. He tentatively said so the first time, then once more with an exquisite tremor of conviction: “I am It.”

The words carried with them wondrous notions of selflessness, of permanence. His father coughed behind him in the house. The children trembled against the sea. He knew the expression on his own face. The entire world was real.

Up to this point, The Seraglio has been threaded with images of insubstantiality, of theater, of the unreal. Read as a self-enclosed set piece, the ending of The Seraglio is as finely shaped and cadenced as a short story; the ending could be that of a Hesse novel, in which the protagonist, after stumbling through a forest of spiritual confusion, finally comes upon a clearing, and enlightenment.

Read as a set piece, the ending describes what Zen Buddhism calls satori, the sudden flash of enlightenment in which the true nature of the universe is revealed, or what Hinduism calls Samadhi, in which all ego boundaries dissolve, and the watcher realizes that he is all things. The ending is the capital ‘E’ epiphany, that moment of enlightenment that, as Charles Baxter warned us, our modern fiction tirelessly manufactures.

But of course we can’t read it without knowledge of what’s gone on before. Francis is also ‘It’ in the way the character in the horror movie, who has been observing the strange goings-on in the small town from the periphery and suddenly finds that the townspeople have turned their malevolent predators ‘gazes in his direction, is ‘It.’

And he is ‘It’ in the way someone with no sex, a man who has hacked off his own genitals, is no longer a he or a she but an ‘It.’ We are also reminded that if a loss of ego boundaries is the sign of enlightenment, it also a sign of madness.

Both readings are formidably present: the beauty and the terror, the chill in our bodies, the stamp of great literature that is like a muscle memory.

— John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.

Images courtesy of bluffton.edu & wustl.edu

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